Colleen Higgs

Getting off lightly

Henry sips his beer, he’s sitting too close to me. We’re both married, but not to each other. It’s his brother’s house and we’re there for different reasons. Sitting there in the dark Joburg night, the air still wet from the earlier rain, I feel as though I’ve stepped back twenty years to a place that still tugs at me.

My pregnant body tingles at his proximity. I can’t drink beer or whisky. I would love to, but I’m disciplined. The bench is hard and my lower back aches. My arms are bare and even though the air is cool I’m overheating. There is an engine inside me building my baby.

He tells me about his father in the hospital and how worried he is. Behind us we can see the lights from the house and the flickering TV – the boys are watching. We talk quietly, comfortable with the silences. It gets later and later. I should go to bed. I’ve been very tired. His presence enlivens me, his familiar eyes and laugh lines, the angle of his jaw, his body. I long to sit even closer, to touch him. I resist the overwhelming urge. I am able to resist.

“We’d better go in. I must go to bed, I’ll be shattered tomorrow.” We stand up and without saying anymore, we embrace each other. I feel his hand, hot and firm on my back, his chest hard against my belly which pushes into him. I might catch fire. He puts a hand to my head, holding me close and feeling the texture of my hair. I want to pull away, I want to pull in closer. I want to scream, I want to weep. He holds me a little longer and then as if we had both agreed, he lets me go and we walk towards the light. Our bodies are thrumming with life.

The embrace released me from the years of missing him, yearning for him. We go to our separate beds. He is out in the garden cottage. I’m sleeping inside in Ernie’s bed, on the bottom bunk. The room is dark, I don’t switch on the lights. I can see his collection of bears in the gloom. One by one I put them on the armchair in the corner, take off my clothes and naked climb into bed. I manoeuvre myself, pillow between my knees, and cradle my large belly. We could have gone to bed together. We could have been naked together, slept with each other. No-one would have known. I could still go. But I don’t and later I’m both sorry and relieved.

I don’t ask him the next day if he would have welcomed me into his bed. I don’t want to know. I want to believe he was disappointed.

The next day he takes me to Tempest Car Hire at the Rosebank Hotel. We drive the back way through the leafy streets of Saxonwold, so quiet, so like a forest, except for the high walls. After that night we weren’t alone again in the same way, but it was okay. I’d gotten off lightly.

Colleen Higgs

 Jungle oats

“Come on, hurry up. We’re going to be late.” I’m sitting on the bed dressing for school. I’ve got my uniform on, she’s hovering like a large bumble bee, her shirt is striped across her body, she’s always cross, always in a hurry, her feet are trying to walk out the door.

“I am hurrying.” I pick up a sock and pull it on.

“Quick, I’m waiting.” There is still jungle oats to eat before the long gravel road, then the tar road, then the border post, then more roads, then school. I want toast. Just toast. But there’s only jungle oats.

“I’m going to count. One, two…”

“No, don’t count!”

The bedspread is pink with those tufty worms that make patterns. I like pulling out the threads one by one. Some parts of the bedspread are bald like they’ve been eaten by a caterpillar. One sock to go, its got lost in the bedspread, oh there it is, black head sticking out of a burrow.

“Two and a half…”

“No, I said don’t count.” My shoes thud at my feet. I look up. The air around her is all bright and dizzy. She doesn’t stand still. I don’t know how to tie my laces. She’ll have to help me. She leans down, her hair falls around her face, like a tent.

“Why do you always have to dawdle?”
My legs jerk as she ties my laces. The pink bedspread stretches away from me, I’m a camel in the desert riding through a storm. I’m cold, it’s still almost dark outside, even though the light next to my bed is on. The light shines in a bright circle that goes fainter at the edges and in the far corner of my room by the bookshelf and the toys, there is hardly any light, as though it got tired and fell asleep before it reached there. It’s so cold in here that my breath makes smoke, I pretend to smoke like mummy, I put my fingers to my mouth inhale and then slowly exhale. I’m trying for smoke rings. She sees me do them. She switches off the light. I follow her to the kitchen, the smell of jungle oats stronger, there’s nowhere to hide from it. I sit down and pick up a spoon. I sprinkle sugar all over the surface until it is crunchy and sparkly, thick. I pour enough milk on to drown it. Now I have to eat it. Oh help! Spoon by slimy spoon I swallow.

I hear Dad revving the car engine. I escape. Run out with my bag, dogs barking. The car door slams. He reverses down the drive. The tyres crunch. I close my eyes for just a few minutes. My legs are cold where they touch the car seat. My toes are frozen and my hands are warm in the woolly blue gloves my granny knitted for me. I breathe on them, each breath is like one of those fan heaters. Every morning it’s like this till winter is over. There are three heads in the car, Dad, Sean and me. I can see theirs in the front. I like sitting in the back by myself. All this space just for me, like the queen.

Colleen Higgs

Following the pied piper

The children follow the pied piper
too fast, too high.
They act as if they don’t notice
the one who is dizzy.

Too fast. Too high.
Their mothers are impassive.
The one who is dizzy
sits very still.

Their mothers are impassive
hurtling through days and distance,
sitting very still,
of course they do.

They hurtled through days and distance
acting as if they didn’t notice
(of course they did)
their children following the pied piper.